Kōrero: Political values

Whārangi 8. Political values and the ‘Kiwi’ way of life

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Crime and punishment

Apart from particular anxieties – about Māori ‘rebels’ in the 19th century or ‘radicals’ in the 19th and 20th centuries – the majority of New Zealanders have generally viewed their country as offering a safe environment: ‘a good place to bring up children’, in the widely quoted colloquial view. Leaving home and vehicle unlocked, however, has become a thing of the past in most parts of the country. The police, while not regularly armed, have easier access to firearms in the 2000s than they had in the past.

New Zealand and the death penalty

In 1961, in a free vote, New Zealand’s Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. In 1987 the National Party leader, Jim Bolger, suggested, during the election campaign, the possibility of a referendum on the death penalty. The proposal was much criticised and no steps were taken by the National government to discuss such a referendum, let alone hold one, once it gained office. In 1989 the death penalty for treason was also abolished.

While ‘law and order’ represents an important value – New Zealand has a high rate of imprisonment compared with most other similar countries – a highly punitive approach to crime falls outside the New Zealand consensus. There is no capital punishment, with the last execution having taken place in 1957. However, a non-binding referendum in 1999 found high levels of support for a tougher stance towards criminals and subsequently governments (both Labour-led and National-led) have responded accordingly.

A small state

The phrase ‘small is beautiful’ describes another element in New Zealand’s political culture. New Zealanders tend to have a self-mocking satisfaction with the country’s small size and limited political and military resources. So the converse of that may reflect New Zealanders’ outlook – that large is often ugly and dangerous. Examples include:

  • the French, ‘arrogantly’ intervening in New Zealand in 1985 to blow up the anti-nuclear protest vessel, the Rainbow Warrior
  • the United States, seen as sometimes taking a heavy-handed approach to world affairs
  • New Zealand’s near neighbours, the Australians, being characterised as overly brash and clumsy.


An important value in any democracy is tolerance – respect for the rights of others, including those with a lifestyle or point of view different from that held by the majority. As in other democracies, tolerance has not always been upheld in New Zealand. In the 1950s communists or ‘reds’ were often socially ostracised. In contemporary New Zealand, with its mix of peoples and cultures, this value is more widely promoted and observed than previously.


New Zealanders like to see themselves as practical, adaptive, pragmatic, adjusting to circumstance with good skills and a cooperative ‘can-do’ spirit. These values extend back to the pioneering days of the 19th century. A preference for common-sense solutions can still be heard in New Zealanders’ discussions of politics, giving the country’s political processes a less rigid ideological character.

A guide to Kiwi values

Visitors to New Zealand may sometimes need guidance about New Zealanders’ values. The University of Auckland, for instance, advises international students that while ‘New Zealanders have a way of life that’s similar to most Western countries … there are some special characteristics. Kiwis are passionate about sport and have a firm belief in social equality. New Zealand people dislike formality and tend to see each other as equals’, and ‘neighbours and people in the workplace are normally on first-name terms’.1


Some have held less positive images of New Zealanders’ values. In the 1950s some intellectuals characterised New Zealanders as overly complacent, anti-intellectual, shallow, smug and conformist: ‘fretful sleepers’ rather than confident, thoughtful and independent participants in a lively cultural community. A resentment for those aspiring to be different, and succeeding – ‘tall poppies’, in the New Zealand vernacular – discouraged excellence and individuality, qualities generally associated in Western culture with the pursuit of happiness. By the 2000s there was less cutting down of ‘tall poppies’, less pressure to conform and a much greater readiness to celebrate excellence and diversity.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. ‘New Zealand social values.’ The University of Auckland, (last accessed 6 March 2012). Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Stephen Levine, 'Political values - Political values and the ‘Kiwi’ way of life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/political-values/page-8 (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Stephen Levine, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012